The Golden Age of comic book movies is upon us. While Marvel has been known for their lighthearted characters, DC, on the other hand, is weaving a more grounded tapestry, with heroes such as Aquaman reimagined for the 21st century. But of course, what is a hero without a villain? In his first solo film, Aquaman will be going toe-to-toe against one of his most infamous nemeses, Black Manta. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, of The Get Down and The Greatest Showman, will be portraying the notorious villain. We had the chance to speak with Abdul-Mateen about how he prepared for the role, his newfound love of comic books, and what sort of technology was incorporated into the production.
Innovation & Tech Today: How did you first get involved with this project?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: At the time, I was doing a movie called The Greatest Showman. I was out here in New York doing trapeze practice three times a week, getting ready for that project, and something came in my box and it has dummy sides, which is basically fake script. I just thought that I’d go for it and I auditioned. I knew that it was some type of big Warner Bros. project, but I didn’t know specifically what the role was. But I kind of gleaned that it would be a good opportunity. I laid down a tape and my manager called me back and she said, “Hey, I think you can do a better tape than that.” I was just over it. The sides was from something like some kind of James Bond movie. I was just like, I don’t feel like doing this, but okay I’ll do it again.
I did the second tape, and a couple weeks later I got a call saying James Wan wanted to meet me and I flew in for it. I flew in, had a lunch meeting, and I kid you not, about five minutes after the meeting I’m in the car heading back to the airport and I get a call from my agent and my manager saying that I got the job. I couldn’t believe it. Usually, I’m so even keel when I get a job, but this one was so surreal because the process was so straightforward. I did one audition. I sent in one tape. I had one lunch meeting, five minutes later I’m getting a major role in a major D.C. universe picture. That was really, really, really exciting.
I&T Today. So, you didn’t really know what the movie was. You didn’t even know what the role was. Does that affect the way you audition at all?
Yahya Adbdul-Mateen II: Well, it’s interesting because, to me, there’s a freedom that I get to just make some decisions. I think eventually I kind of gleaned that it was the Aquaman movie, but I had no idea what specific character. Even if I had known that it was Black Manta, there are several different versions of him in the cartoons and things like that. In this case, I think I benefited from not having a certain knowledge because I could bring something refreshing, something new, my own personal take on the material and the character. So in a way it was kind of liberating because I wasn’t beholden to anything that had been done previously.
I&T Today: Were you a fan of comic books when you were a kid?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Nah. I didn’t know anything about them … I mean, my sisters swear that I used to tie a bath towel around my back and run around the house and say, “Super Bucket!” I know my mom used to call me Super Bucket. Apparently, I used to dress up in a towel and run around the house like it was a cape. I don’t remember that, but enough of them say it that I’m willing to believe it. My brother was into comics; my brother was into all of the comics and things like that, but I thought that comics were just a little too weird.
I wasn’t really about that. I played sports, but at the same time I was on Chess Team and the Debate Club but comics were just a little too far out there, you know?
So I wasn’t, but I’m really excited to be jumping into this world. A lot of people, they kind of envy it a little bit because they say, “Man, I wish I could be finding these comics for the first time just like you are.” So, it’s really cool to go on this journey along with the fans and to ask them for their recommendations and to learn more about it. It’s a lot of fun, man. It’s a lot of fun. It’s nothing like what I expected it would be.
I&T Today: So you’ve really gotten to dive into the comics and learn about Black Manta.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Yeah, I mean I think I’ve read everything where he appears … Whether or not I’ve gotten that like by hand or found some electronic archives online. But, I’ve read all the stuff. He’s a funny character, man. To me, he’s just really funny. I mean everybody knows that he’s ruthless and he’s a badass. But I think he really makes me laugh cause he’s so … He has one goal and I think there’s something funny about a guy who just has one goal. He’s very simple. He’s very simple, so he’s not easily swayed and he’s so persistent. He’s annoyingly persistent and irritating in that way. So yeah, I’ve grown to really admire, well not admire, but really love that about the character.
I&T Today: How do you go about staying true to his character in the comics while adapting him to the big screen?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I think much of what was written in the comics, it adapts. It translates directly without me having to do much … The suit is really the thing that everybody was saying, “How is it going to adapt? How is that going to translate?” That came down to the designers. James Wan and Ironhead Studios made this over-the-top technology that’s a really awesome, badass suit that just looks like it’s something from an alien world. When you see them in the movie, it looks like it belongs in Atlantis, and when he shows up it’s really something from another world…
Black Manta, his purpose is something that’s real and that’s relatable. And that was my goal, to make everything he does rooted in something real so a lot of people could relate to it. It is a lot of fun to be doing that, making people relate to a bad guy.
I&T Today: Do you feel like you can relate to him in certain ways?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I think he’s different. He has a certain level of focus and determination. I mean, I’m definitely a focused and determined person, but he’s excessive on a completely different level. I would say that it’s fun to tap into that, but I like to think that I’m a little bit more … I got my hands in a lot of different places and he does one thing, or maybe two things. He’s an engineer and he kills. He does two things. He’s a mercenary and he kills and he makes cool suits. You know what I mean?
I&T Today: Were there any moments while you were filming when you really felt like you had superpowers?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: It was one of the days where I put on the suit for the first time. It’s ultimately for a fight scene with Jason [Momoa] but even before the scene, I put it on and I could just feel the weight of this thing, and when I put on my helmet I could see how everyone was looking at me from inside the suit. I could look into everyone’s eyes and I just felt indestructible; like I could walk through a wall, or run through a wall and just break shit, you know? Just being inside of that suit, you just feel so powerful, indestructible or something like that. I think anytime I stepped inside of the Black Manta suit, it was one of those moments.
I&T Today: Speaking of his suit, I know a big part of his story is that he’s a scientist. Are you a techie at all?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I think I used to be when I was doing architecture, when I had CAD software, my Rhino software … I was heavy into Photoshop and all the Adobe Suite stuff because I had to do my designs … That really put me on the path of trying, of learning, about software and things like that…
I try not to stay on the iPhone trends so much, but I’m about to get the latest one. I say that, but then I’m one of the second people in line that thinks it’s time to upgrade and things like that. I’m very, very curious about different types of technology. I’m really excited about the future of virtual reality.
There was one moment on set where I got to walk around the Black Manta submarine in VR. This was something that the director used before the set was built. An actor could put this on to learn more about their environment and things like that. One of the things that I want to do is, I want to facilitate something where fans can interact with virtual reality. Just to experience what it’s like to be inside of the Black Manta’s suit. I think that would be something really cool. You set up at the movies, you set up at comic conventions, or whatever. But yeah, I think I have my little, tech savvy parts of myself similar to that guy.
I&T Today: While you were filming, were there any other ways you saw technology being incorporated?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Yeah, man. I mean, we have different shots to give certain perspectives during the fights where we wear cameras on our foreheads to show how we’re fighting. Just for the underwater scenes where Atlantis is, there’s going to be whole new types of technology that hasn’t been on screen yet; similar to when Avatar first came out. Atlantis is a world that is full of technological advances and it’s going to be a world that reveals new sorts of technology that can be shown on screen so I’m excited to see what that’s going to be like.
I&T Today: How does it feel to just be part of this huge blockbuster film?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: It comes and goes. There are some days when I don’t even realize it because I go and do the job and then I leave, and I try to get some rest and do other things. Then there are days where I look up and I say, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I’m a part of this thing.”
It introduces me to a whole new community, a whole new world of people who are excited about something, and I get to share in that. I get to go along that ride with them. Being a part of these movies, it kind of allows you to be a fan at the same time as you’re doing your job because you can read about all the other characters and the people in the other parts of the universe who have super powers also, who are doing really, really cool things.
I&T Today: I don’t know how much you’re allowed to talk about it, but I know you’re also going be in the HBO Watchmen series in 2019. How do you think that will differ from working on Aquaman?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: I have to think a little bit on this one…
I can’t really say much about Watchmen, but I think I can say that Aquaman is not Watchmen. Aquaman definitely has real elements, but it’s also fantastical and it’s about technology and about the underwater world. Kids are going come and flock to see that. Whereas Watchmen, I think being on HBO that gives us a chance to be a little bit more gritty and tell some stories that may be a little bit more risky and dangerous. I think we’re really going to lean into something that is going to be timely and take a real grounded risk. Then there’s still the elements of magic and still the elements of other worldliness that a comic book universe allows. I think it’ll be a good mix of magic and grit.
I&T Today: Now you’ve gotten a taste for the superhero world, is there one superhero or villain that you would love to portray on the big screen?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: The Joker … Yeah, I think the Joker’s such a fun, scary opportunity. That’s something where I look at it and I say, I have no idea what I would do with that, you know? I think that would definitely be a dream type of role, to bring something to that character. But there’s so many guys in line; I think there’s two Jokers right now. But I don’t mind, I’d be one of the guys in line. I think that just shows that it’s such a good role and a good opportunity that I just want to get in and play, you know?